Wally Pfister, ASC helps create a “stealthier” Batman for The Dark Knight

Here is a tip if you are planning to see The Dark Knight. Try to pick a theater that has seat belts, and don’t forget to buckle up, especially if you are at one of the 130 IMAX® screens where the latest adventure of Batman is slated to open. It is a breathtaking adventure featuring the masked hero in a battle of wits and brawn with The Joker, the dark prince of crime. The setting is still the city of Gotham that Batman calls home.

It is an encore performance for cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC, who earned his first Oscar® nomination for Batman Begins in 2006. It is also his fifth collaboration with director Chris Nolan, who was also at the helm on Batman Begins. Their other previous co-ventures were Memento, an independent feature produced on a minimalist budget in 2000, Insomnia in 2002, and The Prestige in 2007. Pfister earned his second Oscar nomination for the latter film.

“Chris told me that people at Warner Bros. were talking with him about The Dark Knight while we were still shooting The Prestige,” Pfister recalls. “He gave me the script to read in September of 2006. Chris co-authored the story with David Goyer, and his brother Jonathan Nolan wrote the script. The first time I read a script, I am getting an understanding of what the story is about, who the characters are, and how we might tell the story. During the second reading, I begin making more technical notes that determine the lighting, color and camera angles.”

Nolan told Pfister that he planned to shoot the opening six-minute sequence, where the audience meets The Joker during a daring bank robbery, in IMAX format. An IMAX 4:3 frame is 65mm wide and 15 perforations long. The image area is 10 times larger than a 35mm frame composed in anamorphic format. His original plan was to use that opening scene as a prologue and also as a preview at IMAX theaters, where screens are eight stories high.

Nolan explained that the rest of the film would be produced in anamorphic 35mm format in 2.4:1 aspect ratio. The IMAX film would be down-rezzed to 35mm film in anamorphic format for screenings in traditional cinemas. The 35mm film would be blown up and intercut with IMAX film for display on large format screens.

Nolan asked Pfister to prepare to shoot a test. The cinematographer had no experience shooting films in IMAX format, however Bob Gorelick, SOC, his camera operator, had some experience in large format photography. Pfister credits David Keighley, president of DKP 70MM, an IMAX subsidiary in Santa Monica, California, with providing initial guidance, camera gear contacts, and subsequent invaluable support during postproduction.

“The last few movies that I have done with Chris have begun with meetings followed by tests filmed at his house in Los Angeles,” Pfister says. “We followed that scenario, and spent an afternoon and evening shooting tests with an IMAX MSM camera in his backyard and garage. I wanted to see how the camera handled, and also experimented with composition, lenses and exposing negative in different ways. We also put the camera on a tripod in the back of a pickup truck and drove down Sunset Boulevard while shooting a test in natural light at night. There was no grain visible on a print made from the processed negative, and we could see every detail in the darkest shadows, with truly rich black tones and extraordinary contrast.”

After seeing the results, Nolan and Pfister with the support of Warner Bros. and the producers, decided to shoot all big action scenes, aerial photography, car chases and physical effects with IMAX cameras. Everything else was done in anamorphic format. An estimated 38 minutes of the final cut was produced in IMAX format.

“We gave a lot of thought to how to move the IMAX cameras,” Pfister emphasizes. “They are heavy and cumbersome. You tend to move them in more specific ways because you have a very wide field of vision, but we felt free to do anything, including using a Steadicam.”

This is the sixth Batman movie since 1989. The masked hero was also a familiar figure on television and in comic books. Pfister describes himself as “an avid fan” of the original TV series. A Batman utility belt and a projector that threw a shadowy, bat-like image on his bedroom wall were among his most treasured possessions. Pfister still has Batman cartoons that his grandfather drew for a newspaper in Wisconsin.

For The Dark Knight, Nolan envisioned a different visual grammar. “Chris was determined to create a compelling cinematic experience,” Pfister explains. “The Batman movies have always been dark. Chris’ script had its dark elements, but there were a lot of daylight and other scenes in brighter environments, including office settings with fluorescent lights, and big open rooms in daytime with sunlight streaming through windows … a fresh look with different angles of photography. His felt the drama would have greater visual impact if we saved the darkest imagery for the end.”

Nolan and Pfister also agreed they would create the look in-camera and add final touches during traditional timing at Technicolor, and use physical rather than visual effects. “We felt that the images would look and feel more natural and believable to the audience,” Pfister says. “That was especially important because of the nature of the story. Batman doesn’t possess super-human powers but he is athletic, and has refined the art of using his cape to glide gracefully down to Earth when he jumps from high places.”

Most of the main characters were portrayed by the same actors featured in Batman Begins. Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman. Wayne lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking the city with his faithful butler Alfred, played by Michael Caine. Aaron Eckhart portrays District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman encore as Lt. James Gordon and Lucius Fox. The late Heath Ledger debuts as The Joker, a sinister villain and a hub the story revolves around.

Pfister and Nolan were also working with the same production and costume designers, Nathan Crowley and Lindy Hemming, whom they had collaborated with on Batman Begins. “We were all on the same page from day one,” Pfister says. “Chris frequently used the word ‘stealthy’ to describe Batman because Batman’s costume is made of a non-reflective, black material, so he can be concealed in shadows. Sometimes we used subtle backlight to separate Batman from dark backgrounds. We did an enormous amount of testing with Christian wearing the cape, cowl and mask in Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne and Batman share the same soul, which is revealed by the light in their eyes. We used handheld, battery-powered light panels with diffusion to put the same glow in both characters’ eyes.”

Pfister assembled a veteran crew, including A camera/Steadicam operator Gorelick, Bob Hall his regular focus puller, operators Michael FitzMaurice and Steven Wojcik, Technocrane operator Mark Woods, camera assistants Daniel McFadden, Ben Perry, Steve Wong, and Dan Schroer and camera loader Jonathan Clark. In England, focus puller Brad Larner was added to the crew.

Hans Bjerno was director of aerial photography, Tim Arasheben was his first assistant and Josh Bleibtreu did additional cinematography in the Chicago area. Wayne Baker and Stewart MacFarland were invaluable in their positions as IMAX technicians/assistants.

New York Times journalist David Halbfinger visited the set while The Dark Knight was shooting in Chicago. His article quoted Nolan referring to Pfister and his crew as “my jazz ensemble.” It’s an appropriate metaphor. Pfister observes, “I played the guitar in a rock-and-roll band in high school. That is still one of my passions. When I look at a shot through a lens, I hear music in my mind. Films, like music, need a sense of rhythm that affects everything from composition to editing … I use the same part of my brain to play a melody that I use to make a decision about how to pan or tilt the camera … it’s about creating a beat or a rhythm.”

No one does it alone, he adds. “It’s a collaborative effort with everyone playing a role, Chris (Nolan), my gaffer, grip and everyone on the camera crew.”

There was a 128-day production schedule, including seven weeks at practical locations in Chicago and a week in Hong Kong. They spent the rest of the time at locations and on sets built in an old airship hangar constructed for the Royal Air Force in 1917 in the United Kingdom. It is 800-feet long, 500-feet wide and 180-feet tall. The lighting grid was 130-feet in the air. Pfister likens it to shooting an old Hollywood movie.

The color palette designed for Gotham in Batman Begins had a rusty-copper tone that visually punctuated the sense of place, time and mood. Pfister, Nolan, Crowley and Hemming took a more organic approach to the use of colors in The Dark Knight. “We played with blue, green and pure white tones that contrasted with very black and rusty hues that were used for continuity at some locations,” Pfister says.

Pfister carried five IMAX cameras, four MSMs and one MKIII. The MSM camera weighs about 65 pounds and it can be used on a Steadicam and on an Ultimate Arm. The 35mm camera package from Panavision included two Millennium XLs and a Platinum body with E and C series prime and zoom lenses. Pfister chose a modest palette consisting of KODAK VISION2 500T 5218 and 250D 5205 color negative films for both IMAX and 35mm scenes.

The opening IMAX robbery scene was filmed at an old post office building in Chicago. A team of robbers wearing clown masks enter a bank for a planned heist. In this sequence, the audience meets The Joker, and Batman, Harvey Dent and Lt. Gordon find out that there is a new villain in town.

Nolan asked for 70mm dailies in IMAX format of the scene. The negative was processed and dailies were printed by Technicolor in Los Angeles. “After that we were so confident about what we were going to see that Chris just asked for selected dailies in 70mm format on some Saturday mornings,” Pfister says. “We always had 30 to 40 crew members there who were totally inspired by what they were seeing. The images were crystal clean and sharp with extraordinary depth of field and incredible texture. It takes me back to being a kid and watching films that seemed much larger than life.”

Pfister describes an unforgettable scene that established The Joker as an arch villain with no conscience. It was staged outside of an empty, four-story factory building in Chicago that was dressed as a hospital. He and Nolan decided to cover that scene with five IMAX and three 35mm cameras from every angle because there was only going to be one take. An IMAX camera on an Ultimate Arm tracked with Ledger as he walked out of the building.

“There is a smug look on The Joker’s face as he presses a button,” Pfister describes. “The camera craned up to a wider shot as the entire building exploded and collapsed. We had a permit to bring in a demolition company to blow up the building. The scene ends with The Joker jumping on a bus and closing the back door mere seconds before the charges are triggered.”

Nolan and Pfister felt the camera only belonged one place at a time when they were filming dialogue scenes in the anamorphic format. They occasionally used a second camera when the lighting was right in fight and stunt scenes. “Chris was always around the camera keeping in direct contact with the actors, rather in a video village,” Pfister says. “He had a little, portable monitor hanging around his neck.”

While it is an epic, big-action film, Pfister took a painterly approach to lighting. “Batman is a creature of the night,” he says. “You just see his mouth and eyes. There is some sheen on the cowl and the rest of the costume, but the cape was absolutely matte black. It was like lighting a piece of Duvateen. We used eyelight to bring the person behind the mask to life. I used a Kino Flo Kamio Ring Light that was designed to go around the lens, but because of the matte box, I decided to put it on an armature that was attached to the camera. If it was too bright, I used an ND6 gel on the light and a 1/4 CTS filter to warm it up. That didn’t create shadows because it’s a soft light, but it was hard enough to put a ding in his eyes.”

In conclusion, Keighley observes, “I have worked on 227 IMAX projects during the past 36 years and have seen some amazing cinematography, but I have never seen anything like this done on a narrative film before. It’s a totally engaging experience.”

By Bob Fisher